Review: The Gate to Women’s Country

TW: homophobia, transphobia.

This review contains spoilers.

It was only as I was leaving my local library with Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country in tow that I remembered that Tepper was responsible for the woeful The Margarets, an unfocused and regressive novel that took me simply ages to finish.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened The Gate to Women’s Country, and with some surprise that I realised I rather liked it.

It’s set in a post-apocalyptic version of what is probably North America, about three hundred years after what was probably a nuclear war. The recovering landscape is dotted with small towns with names like Marthatown and Susantown. In these towns, the women work, learn, practice medicine, grow food, raise children and generally run a functioning, sustainable society (complete with a thriving artistic culture), while the men (mostly) live in garrisons and conduct periodic wars with the garrisons of neighbouring towns.

It’s the kind of over-simplistic social stratification that I usually find deeply suspect. And, to be sure, Tepper makes her society’s views on queer people abundantly, vindictively clear:

“Even in preconvulsion times it had been known that the so-called ‘gay syndrome’ was caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy. The women doctors now identified the condition as ‘hormonal reproductive maladaption’ and corrected it before birth. There were very few actual HRNMs – called HenRams – either male or female, born in Women’s Country, though there was still the occasional unsexed person or the omnisexed who would, so the instructors said, mate with a grasshopper if it would hold still long enough.”

That nasty paragraph, round about page 76, is extremely hard to swallow. (It’s worth noting that The Margarets is similarly homophobic and transphobic – though less explicitly so than here.) And I don’t want to play down the damage it does!

And yet – still I found Tepper’s novel fascinating. Because this isn’t a Hunger Games-style dystopia, where a Chosen One works to bring the system down. No. The Gate to Women’s Country is a bildungsroman of sorts: we watch as Our Hero, the young woman Stavia, grows into her society; as she strains against its apparently arbitrary restrictions and rules, she begins to appreciate their function.

Because one of the big questions the novel is asking is: what price utopia? The novel’s most vertiginous reveal, right at the end, is that the secrecy-shrouded sisterhood that rules this society is basically running a selection programme with the remnants of humanity: they’re striving to breed violence out of the population to avoid another catastrophic war. This, without the consent or knowledge of the people who they’re sterilising or impregnating to get the right results. It’s this sisterhood that Stavia grows into, having experienced first-hand the violence that men can visit upon women when she inadvertently strays into a community of paternalistic fundamentalist Christians which is suffering from a chronic shortage of wives. (Content warning here for rape.)

While the idea that violence is a) exclusively male and b) genetically determined is obviously simplistic, I think the moral picture here is quite interesting. It’s pretty clear that having to make these decisions on behalf of the populace is a curse for these women; and equally clear that they feel it’s necessary to protect humanity from itself. It’s also clear that Women’s Country is, by and large, happy, stable and functioning; there are sacrifices to be made, when sons reject their mothers to join the garrisons; but everyone is reasonably well-fed, everyone is healthy, and though the women work hard they also seem fulfilled. (Garrison culture, on the other hand, is basically toxic. But then that’s Tepper’s point.) So: is this contingent, imperfect utopia – which is getting ever better as the land heals and fewer and fewer boys choose to join the garrisons – worth the price everyone is paying for it?

There’s also a sub-question, here, about what honour looks like. Is it the men squabbling in their barracks, scheming maliciously against the women and punishing the weak – but, oh, how bright their banners? Or is it the women, working steadily to remake the world? I do enjoy Tepper’s examination of women’s work and how fundamental it actually is to a functioning society – it’s something SF doesn’t often consider structurally, and in that respect I can see how this has been hailed as a feminist classic.

Of course if you’re going to do that you also have to acknowledge the limits of its feminism: its exclusion of LGBT+ people, and its gender-essentialist conclusion that women are not capable of excessive violence (and that they’re genetically inclined to its obverse, the work of nurturing and caring). It is, in other words, a massively flawed work – albeit a well-structured one with an unusually coherent worldview and some pertinent questions about what society should look like. I enjoyed it without enjoying its politics, which I think is pretty rare for me. I’ll approach Tepper warily in future, though.


Doctor Who Review: The Shakespeare Code

So…there are good episodes of Doctor Who, and there are not-so-good episodes.

The Shakespeare Code is a less-good one. But for Davies-era Who, “less-good” tends to translate into “campy fun” as opposed to “poorly-plotted mess”, which is what Moffat-era “less-good” looks like.

Got all that?

Unsurprisingly, The Shakespeare Code sees Martha and the Doctor meeting Shakespeare. In particular, they’re about to solve the mystery of Love’s Labours Won, a real-world lost Shakespeare play which may or may not ever have existed. The episode’s Big Bad is a trio of alien witches called the Carrionites, whose magic (it’s hand-waved as Science, but for all intents and purposes it’s magic) is based on the power of words. They’re intent on using the Bard to write a spell (in the form of a play) to free the rest of their people from the vortex where they’re trapped, so they can then take over the world.

It’s extremely campy indeed. The actors playing the witches are clearly having a lot of fun hamming them up in classic Macbeth-y prosthetic masks, shrieking rhyming doggerel at the rest of the cast. There’s lots of jokes where the Doctor quotes Shakespeare at Shakespeare. Ooh, and Shakespeare is bi! Which may even be historically accurate!

(well…sort of. Elizabethan conceptions of sexuality and same-gender relationships were unsurprisingly rather different from ours, so the label “bisexual” is probably not completely accurate. Still: it’s a concept that’s immediately understandable to modern audiences in the context of a 45-minute space drama, which is probably the most important thing in terms of queer representation. Also: I always forget, and always re-relish, how accessible Davies-era Who is to queer audiences. It just kind of…takes our existence as read? In a way that even Chris Chibnall’s work doesn’t really? And there is SO little mainstream media that does that, let alone mainstream media from 2007.)

There’s also some surprisingly good (or at least convincing) Shakespeare pastiche going on – although, at the same time, for a story about the power of words, the witches’ doggerel is cringe-inducing. As a result, The Shakespeare Code is an episode heavy on the spectacle but light on meaning and theme; the plot’s rudimentary at best and draws some rather hackneyed lines between grief and genius.

Oh, and the concept of genius itself feels rather old-fashioned, too: Shakespeare was brilliant, but he was also a hack – much like that other beloved British writer, Charles Dickens. Roberts is revealing his motivations here: the only work this episode is supposed to be doing is Having Shakespeare In It, because bringing Shakespeare and the Doctor together sounds like fun.

It is fun. It’s just not very good.

Review: Three Moments of an Explosion

In Three Moments of an Explosion, you never find out what’s going on.

That’s true, at least, of many of the stories in China Mieville’s short story collection. As you’d expect, all of them are touched by weirdness. Many of them are set in worlds only slightly different from our own: in “Polynia”, the second story, icebergs gather over London even as they melt over the poles; in the final story, “The Design”, a medical student finds elaborate scrimshanders on the bones of a corpse he’s been dissecting; in “Covehithe”, sunken oil rigs walk out of the seas and lay eggs. In all three cases, we never find out exactly why.

Then there are the stories that more explicitly push formal boundaries: “A Second Slice Manifesto” is a piece about a deconstructivist artistic movement that reveals half-glimpsed uncanny truths in our world; “The Rope is the World” is more or less pure worldbuilding, a tale about the construction and decline of a number of space elevators sprouting around the Equator; a “Syllabus” for a course entitles Humanity, Introspection and Debris hints at a world in which time travel, sentient insects and privatised illness are all day-to-day facts of life. There are a number of scripts for film trailers, too, which get increasingly esoteric as the book goes on.

The point is to defamiliarise normality; to gesture at a reality that’s far stranger and more capacious than the realist literary tradition allows for. Sometimes this is for political ends, as in (the horrible) “Säcken”, a ghost story about how a failure of justice redounds upon itself in endless cycles of vengeance. Sometimes it asks us to question our genre assumptions: “In the Slopes” is a story about the excavation of a Pompeii-like volcanic site where extraterrestials lived and prayed alongside humans. We never find out where they came from. Sometimes it’s simply about how our societies are shaped by natural forces outside our control: strange new diseases (origins unknown) are a theme, in “Keep” and “The Bastard Prompt”, and there’s the return of the environments we’ve been neglecting in “Polynia” and “Covehithe”.

This is, in other words, a technique that opens to us other ways of seeing and thinking – to peer beyond the ideology of late capitalism and see new things. This is SFF doing what SFF does best: too unsettling to console, and too insistent on its own form to allow us to escape through it. I found myself rationing the stories out, one story per sitting, so I could give myself space to absorb and think about each one; it felt wrong to binge them, though I often wanted each story to be longer, to reveal more about the world it described.

If it’s not already obvious, I enjoyed Three Moments of an Explosion a lot. It’s really rare to find SFF as good as this; so a whole collection of it is a proper treat.

Review: The Magicians

I’ve been meaning to read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians for a while, despite being burned by his sub-Da Vinci Code airport thriller Codex: how could that writer come out with something that seems so well-known in genre circles?

Well…I see it now.

It’s pretty explicitly a response to the Harry Potter series, which is in itself a commercial decision, right? Our Hero is Quentin Coldwater, a whiny teenager who is one day unexpectedly accepted into Brakebills, a sort of university for magic. Brakebills is like Hogwarts except with more sex, drugs and general nihilistic menace: at one point, a prank of Quentin’s sees a teacher’s spell go disastrously wrong, so a demon breaks in from another reality and leaves a hollowed-out husk in place of one of the students.

Quentin is very believable as an older version of Harry Potter, though: unexceptional, entitled and vastly less interesting than any of his friends. The emotional core of The Magicians is his vast sense of disappointment with the world: disappointment that his life is not more like a story. This disappointment has its foundations in a series of books he used to read as a child, about an enchanted land called Fillory, visited by four children who become Kings and Queens and…yes, Fillory is a Narnia analogue. The Fillory books have told Quentin for years that life should be simple, and authentic, and exciting; instead, he gets modernity, complex and mundane.

I mean. Yes? I think probably a lot of SFF readers have grown up like Quentin, searching for magic (for which read meaning) in a postmodern world; that’s an interesting Theme to explore. The problem is, partly, that Grossman frames Brakebills as a place of extraordinary privilege; magic stands in for wealth and power. Again, that’s an interesting move in itself, and there’s an implied critique here of the abdication of social responsibility that’s going on in the Potter books when its wizards refuse to help solve Muggle problems with magic. But it means that Quentin’s disillusionment just feels whiny and overprivileged; poor little rich kid, life is so hard. It doesn’t help that he’s standing in the way of characters who are facing genuine hardship even at Brakebills: Eliot, who is gay (or more probably bi, but Quentin hasn’t heard of bisexuality; it would probably make his mind explode, given his reaction to Eliot’s sexual orientation) in what reads as a pretty homophobic environment; Alice, whose brother died at Brakebills a few years earlier; heavily-tattooed and presumably working-class Penny. All of these people are more interesting than Quentin. Perhaps that’s the point. It’s still an unrelentingly miserable read.

Werll, all right, that’s not exactly true. The Magicians is fun on a world-building level. We get a lot of detail about the teachers and lessons and daily routine at Brakebills, which once again feels like a commercial decision: none of this is strictly necessary to what Grossman is trying to do, which is, broadly, Be Cynical About Hogwarts (to be fair, this isn’t difficult to achieve). But audiences like reading about Hogwarts, will sign up in their millions to sites like Pottermore that drip-feed pure world-building, so let’s give ’em more Hogwarts!

But it’s also endlessly, endlessly mean-spirited. There’s cynicism around every corner; everything is tainted by pettiness and rivalry and a terrible boredom eating at the edges of things. And, yeah, I can see Grossman’s point, but also he made the same point like 300 pages ago? And, really, do we still think cynicism untempered by empathy or hope is clever or constructive? Do we need to repeat the opening steps of postmodernism endlessly?

Which is to say: I have hated The Magicians and I have…not exactly loved it. Liked it, maybe. It has some moderately interesting points to make, which is vastly more than you can say for Codex. It is, however, as the Bandersnatch is fond of saying, not my favourite.

Review: Down Under

Down Under is travel writer Bill Bryson’s account of Australia, based on a number of visits over what feels like a year or so. He covers the major cities, crosses the outback by train, plane and car, and makes friends with a range of people in remote places. There is, apparently, Humour.

I have a chequered history with Bryson’s work: while I love Notes from a Big Country, his book of columns about life in New Hampshire, I found Notes from a Small Island, an account of his farewell tour of England, chauvinistic and pompous. And not funny.

Down Under falls, I think, somewhere in the middle. Bryson describes Australia right from the get-go as a kind of earthly paradise:

Let me say right here that I love Australia – adore it immeasurably – and am smitten anew each time I see it…The people are immensely likeable – cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted and unfailingly obliging. Their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water. They have a society that is prosperous, well ordered and instinctively egalitarian…

Which may well all be true, so long as you aren’t queer, female or a person of colour. Australian society is famously homophobic, and the Australian government is famously anti-immigration. (We’ll get to Indigenous Australians in a bit.) But then Bryson is more than a little bit racist himself, which might be why he and Australia get on so well together:

One of the effects of paying so little attention to Australia is that it is always such a pleasant surprise to find it there. Every cultural instinct and previous experience tells you that when you travel this far you should find, at the very least, people on camels. There should be unrecognisable lettering on the signs, and swarthy men in robes drinking coffee from thimble-sized cups and puffing on hookahs and rattletrap buses and potholes in the road and a real possibility of disease on everything you touch – but no, it’s not like that at all.

This book has aged badly, to put it mildly.

At least Bryson does eventually get round to discussing the plight of the Indigenous Australians, although it does take him about ten chapters, and he’s appalled at the way they’ve been treated by white Australians. But at no point does he make the effort to meet, interview or talk to anyone Indigenous; they’re always in the background, presented as sad, damaged figures without agency or narrative.

Which is all to say that Bryson experiences Australia very much as a white straight man, which is occasionally problematic but mainly just a particular lens. It does have the effect of making this not very interesting to me? Bryson isn’t really looking at the things I’d be interested in, or the things I’d need to know about as a queer woman if I visited Australia. And it’s not that funny to me, either – but then humour is a subjective thing, after all. Sometimes books and readers just don’t hit it off, and this was one of those times.

Review: League of Dragons

So here it is: the last in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, an alternative history of the Napoleonic wars, with dragons.

League of Dragons opens with Napoleon’s forces fleeing through frozen Russia after a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the allied armies. It’s a major victory for everyone who doesn’t want to see Napoleon ruling over Europe, but it’s not the end of the war – especially when Napoleon’s dragon Lien steals a precious egg belonging to Temeraire (the series’ draconic co-protagonist) and fire-breathing Iskierka. The egg, and the creature that hatches from it, could be key to the war effort, and is in any case personally important to Temeraire and Iskierka – so of course it’s up to Temeraire’s Captain Laurence and his crew to get it back.

It’s actually a pretty episodic novel for a series ender. There’s the bitter trek across Russia at the beginning of the book; a stay in a peasant’s house; the rescue expedition itself; a spell in England while Laurence tries to win the allegiance of dragon captains who think poorly of him; and a lot of battlefield action, which involves plenty of military strategy and planning.

The theme running through much of the novel is that of Laurence’s unbending concept of honour: when is it useful, and when is it dangerous? For him, it’s one of the things that keeps military society together: having strict social codes and hierarchies avoids dangerous dissensions in military units, and that’s something Laurence struggles with when multiple dragon captains are placed under his command despite his historical trial for treason. But it can also lead him outside the very social codes it’s established to protect – as when he becomes involved in a duel with a pampered aristocrat; duels are frowned upon for dragon captains because it potentially robs the army of a valuable weapon (one dragon being much more valuable than one person).

This is a discussion that’s been happening throughout the series, though, and I’m not convinced League of Dragons advances it particularly. The episodic form of the novel is potentially more interesting – although, again, previous novels have done this (notably Throne of Jade, one of my favourites). I see lots of Goodreads commenters complaining that League of Dragons isn’t very climactic, but maybe that’s the point? For me, this isn’t a series whose best points are made by big battles and military strategy – it’s about relationships and the different kinds of allegiances people have to each other and their countries and societies, and how and where those allegiances clash. So it makes sense that this last novel would focus on putting its protagonist in all sorts of uncomfortable situations and seeing how he copes with them.

I do think that this novel has less of a focus on colonialism and other social justice issues than the series as a whole does. We see comparatively little of Laurence’s female crew member Emily Roland, and still less of her mother, Admiral Roland. Having said that, we do get flights of Chinese dragons and Napoleon’s wife, the Incan Empress Anahuarque – if not the detailed engagement with their societies that some of the earlier novels have delivered. It’s still great to see these cultures written into Novik’s universe in such a fundamental way, though.

I don’t know that this series particularly stands out for me. I’m fond of it; I love the gentle, caring interactions we get between Laurence and Temeraire (even if I think Novik infantilises the supposedly sentient dragons a little too much to make their case for independence and self-governance entirely credible). And I like the way it engages with Europe’s colonialist history and rewrites marginalised groups into what is in part a military comedy of manners (Laurence’s crew features at various points in the story a Black boy, a female crew member and a canonically gay man). I enjoy its discussion of honour and Novik’s careful depiction of her characters’ various relationships. I think it’s working hard, and largely succeeds in what it’s trying to do. Which – well, I don’t think there’s that much more you can ask for from a series.

Review: American Gods

American Gods is a classic. When you tell people you don’t much like Neil Gaiman’s work, they say, “Have you read American Gods?”

Well, now I have.

It’s not that bad, actually. I liked it more than I liked Neverwhere or Anansi Boys or Stardust – it’s bigger and baggier and more ambitious than those novels, and bigness and bagginess and ambition are all things I respond well to in my reading.

It’s a road-trip novel, basically: a man named Shadow, fresh out of prison, mourning a wife who died before he could see her again, is hired by a mysterious old guy calling himself Wednesday to do various bodyguard-type duties. Wednesday’s work consists of travelling the length and breadth of America to rally its gods – gods from every continent, brought to America by immigrants and blow-ins, from the Vikings to the Ancient Egyptians; gods grown old and dying as people stop believing in them and put their faith instead in the new gods of electricity, the media and the stock market.

The thing is, though…American Gods doesn’t read like a lament. It’s not like The Lord of the Rings, where magic is dying and the gods are passing and remote and the age of machines is coming with slow inevitability. Nor is the dichotomy between old and new so clear-cut as it is in Tolkien’s novel. Gaiman’s gods are old, but they’re also sly. No, this novel isn’t so much a lament for ancient days as it is a work that complicates our understanding of modernity and rationality. Wednesday and Shadow’s travels take in sacred places – which aren’t monuments like Mount Rushmore, or grand places of worship, or natural formations like the Grand Canyon, but roadside curiosities with names like the House on the Rock or Rock City. The House on the Rock boasts the oldest working carousel in America. Rock City boasts a cave full of dolls. They’re places so kitschy and so random that they almost can’t be anything other than sacred: they seemingly have no place in modernity, and yet tourists flock to them. And that’s what American Gods is about: the places where the new gods of modernity cannot go. The places rationality – or the cult of rationality – cannot reach.

That’s what I liked about it, really: its celebration of the glorious, baggy diversity of human experience. In some ways it’s a kind of tour of America’s history: there’s the Vikings, yes, but the Egyptian gods Ibis and Thoth also remember people from the Nile reaching America’s shores (and trading there, I think?) thousands of years ago, and there’s an Algonquian trickster figure (Wisakedjak, Anglicised here as Whiskey Jack) living on a Lakota reservation and bemoaning the fate of the Native American tribes. There’s a gay Omani businessman, new to New York and not liking it much, who swaps lives with a taxi driver ifrit, in one of the tenderest scenes in the novel. Then there’s the fact that Shadow, the novel’s protagonist (and, it turns out, the scion of a major European pantheon), is Black, which shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is.

Unfortunately, this generosity doesn’t extend to the novel’s female characters. This is a perennial problem with Gaiman’s work: his women have little agency and less characterisation. Take Bilquis, for example, the Queen of Sheba, a sex goddess who – wait for it – eats men with her vagina. Which could go either way, honestly: Gaiman’s portrayal of the scene tips it towards the titillating-horror end of the spectrum, but I’d be happy to go with the reparative feminine-empowerment reading if it weren’t for the fact that he kills her off before she has a chance to do anything very much apart from look sexy for the readers? Like. If you’re going to have a vagina dentata, I feel you should at least do something interesting with it.

Then there’s Shadow’s wife, Laura. There’s something vaguely interesting going on with Laura, in that it slowly becomes apparent that she isn’t as innocent and lovely as Shadow thinks she is. But, again, this doesn’t particularly go anywhere, and in the end her arc is still only all about who she is in relation to her husband, and what she does for him. We don’t really get a sense of her as a person with her own purpose and agency.

Much like its sort-of sequel Anansi Boys, then, American Gods is specifically a male novel: its bagginess conceals a story that at its heart is invested in male lines of succession and inheritance. I guess that fits with Gaiman’s aesthetic – he writes old stories, revivifies ancient narratives, and patriarchy is one of the oldest stories there is – but what irks me is that it’s so at odds with his progressive social media persona. The objectification of female bodies is there in pretty much all his work, over a period of decades: that’s the hallmark of someone who hasn’t done the work to take it out. American Gods is a story of America; it retells the American myth of the melting pot, the meeting of people from all walks of life, all over the world. But Gaiman’s America is not a place for women; or, more precisely, it’s not a place that women contribute to in the same way that men do. It’s a place created by, and for, men. Which is as untrue a myth, in its own way, as the Trumpian one in which America is a place created by, and for, white people. Sure, I want to read novels that capture the wide strangenesses of the world, but also…I want to read novels that don’t specifically exclude me? I enjoyed American Gods, but it feels incomplete to me, as all of Gaiman’s work does. Alas; I don’t think I’ll ever be a fan.